America’s National Parks

Their principles, purposes, and prospects

National Parks
View from Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park, 1915 (Keystone View Company Studios, Meadville, Pennsylvania, © Underwood & Underwood, courtesy of the National Park Service Historic Photo Collection)
National Parks
Auto tour at Sylvan Lake, Yellowstone National Park, 1916 (Haynes, courtesy of the National Park Service Historic Photo Collection)
National Parks
Buffalo herd near Fort Yellowstone, 1905 (William Henry Jackson, Copyright © 1905 Detroit Photographic Co., courtesy of the National Park Service Historic Photo Collection)
National Parks
View of Grand Canyon, 1930 (George A. Grant, courtesy of the National Park Service Historic Photo Collection)

“It’s not just another American convention hotel. . . . It’s a great American castle. . . . All your worldly needs are provided for . . . when you go to the barber or the hairdresser or the gift shops. . . .This isn’t no-man’s-land. Or primitive wilderness. This is civilization.”


Yosemite National Park is not exactly civilization, despite these advertising claims of Music Corporation of America, which took over the park’s concessions in 1973. Like a number of other major recreational developers, MCA in recent years began looking to the national parks as a great unexploited resource of one of America’s fastest-growing industries. The National Park Service has thus been importuned to allow the building of new hotels, improved roads, ski developments, aerial tramways, and a host of other such facilities. These proposals raise one of the perpetual issues in our public lands policy—the purpose of the national parks. Although “the national parks idea” is a familiar phrase, the governing statutes speak in very general and unrevealing language. The founding of the parks is itself shrouded in a good deal of mystery, but it is there that our search must begin.

In the midst of the Civil War, on June 30, 1864, President Lincoln signed a bill granting Yosemite to the state of California for “public use, resort and recreation,” The national parks were born at that moment. There was no tradition of great scenic parks anywhere in the world, there was no organized public movement in favor of parks, and Congress did not seem to have any particular interest in the idea. Even the most assiduous scholarly efforts over the years have turned up only fragmentary suggestions of the notion in the writings of figures such as Jefferson and Thoreau.

The lands themselves were barely known. The October 1859 issue of Hutchings California Magazine recounted the details of a voyage into the then remote Yosemite Valley. Visitors had to take a boat from San Francisco to Stockton, followed by a 16-hour stagecoach ride to Coulterville, and finally a 57-mile, 36-hour trek by horse and pack mule into the valley.

Scarcely any definite knowledge exists concerning the establishment of Yosemite. A bill to turn the land over to California, to be held by it as a public park, was introduced in Congress by Senator John Conness of California. Conness said that he was putting the bill forward in response to a request from some constituents, whom he described only as gentlemen “of fortune, of taste and of refinement.” A letter to Conness from Israel Ward Raymond, recommending the reservation of Yosemite, has been preserved; all that is known of Raymond is that he was the California representative of the Central American Steamship Transit Company.

Others who are believed to have supported Raymond’s suggestion were Jessie Benton Frémont, the wife of John C. Frémont and the daughter of Senator Thomas Hart Benton; Galen Clark, a pioneer who lived in the Yosemite Valley and became its official greeter and guardian; Thomas Starr King, a well-known Unitarian preacher and author, who had written vivid descriptions of Yosemite in 1860 and 1861; Josiah Dwight Whitney, the chief of the California Geological Survey; Judge Stephen Field; John F. Morse, a San Francisco physician; and Frederick Law Olmsted, who in 1863 had come to California to manage the Mariposa mining estate, following one of his periodic clashes with the bureaucracy.

Although the Yosemite legislation set a unique legal precedent, little is known of its background. The language of the bill is taken directly from the letter that Raymond wrote to Conness, yet all it says by way of explanation is that “it is important to obtain the proprietorship soon, to prevent occupation [of the valley by homesteaders] and especially to preserve the trees in the valley from destruction.” The bill was not debated in the Congress even though it was the first time that federal land had been dedicated to a nonutilitarian purpose, a policy that would subsequently be seriously, although unsuccessfully, challenged in the Supreme Court on the ground that the federal government was without authority to promote conservation and recreation. Not surprisingly, the statute contains no hint of what (if anything) Congress had in mind about the kind of recreational experience it thought visitors to Yosemite ought to have or about the conflict between preservation and use, although, as we shall see, that was already becoming an issue at popular vacation resorts such as Niagara Falls.

We shall never know exactly how Congress was induced to take so unprecedented a step in fashioning a new public policy, but the explanation probably lies in the influence enjoyed by those who supported the Raymond letter. Josiah Dwight Whitney, whose writings evidence a powerful attraction to places of scenic grandeur, was the scion of a prominent American family that had founded a great mercantile house and given three presidents to Yale. Whitney knew Conness, who, as a member of the California legislature, had written the law creating the California Geological Survey, which Whitney headed. He also knew Judge Field and Thomas Star King. whose church he attended. Whitney’s brother-in-law, who was secretary of the California Steam Navigation Company, may have been the link between Whitney and Raymond. A letter emanating from these sources was nothing less than a message from the leaders of San Francisco society and would inevitably be given more than ordinary attention.

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